The Best Films of 2019
While the shelf life of films in theaters seems to be dwindling with each passing year, it feels like films are becoming broader and more rewarding with every passing year. There as many great films being released now than ever before, the key is to know where to look. Top tier films are being released in every genre; Comedy, horror, animation, genre, rom-com's and comic book adaptations now stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the more dramatic affairs of the heart and this is a good thing. Women are also getting more opportunities than ever before and they're delivering films that are stoic, engaging and in many cases hysterical. While television binging has taken over the public's consciousness and time, but the cinema is still in my estimation the world's greatest art form.
An engrossing story that's framed within a few hours allows us into new and different worlds where the characters struggles become our own as we wrestle with their euphoria and their discomfort. Cinema exposes us to different cultures where their beauty is highlighted reminding us we've all been strangers in strange lands at some point. Each and every day is an experience and the power of a great film is to amplify our compassion. It has the power to make us confront our feelings and fears but more significantly, the visceral images force us to walk-a-mile in the heroes and anti-heroes we encounter.
Here are one-hundred films that helped me with my journey in 2019.
1. The Mustang
Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre's debut film features Matthias Schoenaerts as a prisoner who gets chosen for a rehabilitation program to work with wild horses has a clarity to it that has haunted me since I first saw it. It made me feel in a way no other film in 2019 could touch. The story, her poetic imagery, the pain exhibited by Schoenaerts and ultimately the realization that a better life can be reached is both magnificent and lingering. The film gets bonus points for hiring graduates of this wild horse program which gives the film an undercurrent of realism. There is a haunting beauty to the film that has never left me. Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre delicately balances the story injecting it with heart and humanity in a world where we often lose it through the harsh realities of life.
After multiple viewings, I'm still wrapping me around the sociological metaphors in the story, the production design and camera setups. A simple scene lasting mere seconds warrants a deep dive discussion proving that Bong Joon Ho's film is about more than a pair of families in Korea, but about the sharpening divides of society and the upstairs/downstairs world we live in. Parasite is a rarity in the world a cinema; a truly perfect film.
3. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
If you take your pulse during any Quentin Tarantino film, you'll find your heart rate elevated in the best possible way. No writer in Hollywood can command large audience with dialogue-driven films like Tarantino and Hollywood is one of his best with Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio leading the charge as a pair of buddies, one an actor and the other his stunt double in the 1960s. While the film takes liberties with the story, at its core, it is a vital film about two friends who are at the epicenter of a pendulum swing in history. The film's greatest achievement may be the way Tarantino effortlessly weaves all these stories together culminating in a blazing finale. Brad Pitt has never been better and Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate is radiant, not just in physical appearance but in her screen time, which hearkens back to a simpler and more innocent time.
4. The Souvenir
Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir plays like a book where you swear someone tore pages out. You question whether chapters are missing or if the book was bound incorrectly but if you're patient, you will be rewarded. Hogg's camera hovers over its characters like an observer who is an unreliable witness, but yet, the camera tells us everything we need to know. You almost feel as if you're eavesdropping on these lives. Tilda Swinton's daughter, Honor Swinton-Byrne plays Julie, a film school student who begins a love affair with an older man. The film isn't filled with needless scenes and as we watch the couple, you may be asking yourself questions about things that occur off-screen, however, there isn't a single waste scene here. The film, loosely based on Hogg's own life, captures the heart of being young and committed to the wrong person. The film is about Julie finding her way in the world where the uncertainty, disappointment and heartbreak will stay with her like a scar... or better yet, a souvenir.
5. Blinded By the Light
Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha made a film that is more than a coming-of-age story, it's a love letter to the arts. The lead character of Javed (performed with great vulnerability and winking humor by Viveik Kalra), is a British-Pakistan teen in Thatcher's England who is trying to find his way through the world. He looks to the tradition in his family, but it doesn't speak to him and in truth, nothing does until a classmate hands him a pair of cassettes by Bruce Springsteen. That evening, in a moment of crisis where he throws away all his writings and puts on the music, where he is transformed. Chadha captured the whirlwind of emotions that come with music discovery as well as anyone to date on film. The film is sweet, sentimental and often gut wrenching. It's predictable in the best way but every word, beat and note of this film is authentic and rings true. No film from 2019 restored my faith in the world more than this one. Blinded By the Light isn't just a love letter to Springsteen's music, but to the importance of art in our lives and how it can provide color and guidance where there is none. I loved this film with all the madness in my soul.
6. Queen & Slim
Music video veteran Melina Matsoukas, whose work with Beyoncé has proven to be ground-breaking, made her feature film debut as a director. Queen & Slim takes a page from Bonnie & Clyde but its political implications elevate the material. In a society riddled with violence and media narratives of who is good and who is bad, Lena Waithe's script takes the two leads (played with relish and vigor by Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith) into elegiac new directions. We make the journey with them as they make their way through America in hope of finding a better tomorrow as they search for their own promised land.
7. Knives Out
Rian Johnson delivers the best whodunit in decades. It's a romp of a ride that will keep you guessing until the final scene. The cast is top tier as they wrestle with their privilege but make no mistake, the film belongs to Daniel Craig whose Benoit Blanc is a character for the ages and one worthy of a dozen films.
8. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Joe Talbot wrote a love letter to San Francisco that is similarly striking and shattering. The movie comes from the point of view of Jimmie and Montgomery and their fascination with a Victorian home with familial ties but now is out of reach due to gentrification. Characters emerge and disappear but they layer the story with the right balance of humor and heartache. Emile Mosseri's score is a musical miracle, which never overstays its welcome but seeps into your pores as will this story which is a testament to the human spirit. The film houses my favorite quote of the year, "You don't get to hate San Francisco. You don't get to hate it unless you love it."
There is something to be said about the arc of a successful American family. Driven, passionate and gut wrenching Trey Edward Shults film takes us inside the Williams family which reveals love, scars, emotional blemishes and rage. Every scene is vivid and alive and is an expansive American story of tragedy and redemption.
10. The Irishman
While many heralded Martin Scorsese for returning to his mob roots with Joe Pesci and Robert DeNiro, many mistakenly dismissed it as ground the director has previously traveled on but there's so much more to the film than meets the eye. Joe Pesci gives the greatest performance of his career as a mensch for the mob and it's the film's final act that solidifies the importance of The Irishman. Scorsese's characters drown in their own guilt as the clock of life continues to tick. Like a grandfather clock in an old house, where in the middle of the night you can hear "Tick-tick-tick-tick" as you wrestle with sleep wanting rest before the sun rises; DeNiro's character is gazing at a life whose end can't come soon enough. This isn't about surviving; it's about living with the consequences of your actions and it's why it's a dynamic entry into Scorsese's filmography.
11. A Hidden Life
Terrance Malick has been always been viewed as a consummate artist willing to sacrifice everything in service of his vision. He used to take years between films often in an editing suite where he was perfecting the story he wanted to tell. The first thirty-seven years of his career featured a mere four films, all critically acclaimed with a few of them, The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven and Badlands, hailed as masterpieces. Malick began the decade with the stunning The Tree of Life and then something unexpected happened, he made five films in eight years, the same number of films that took him thirty-eight years to make. The films that followed Life were each a meandering mess. Make no mistake, what Malick captured on film is as great as any wonder of the world, where they often illuminated beauty from nature in a way we never appreciate in real life, but the narrative structure of these films left much to be desired. They were so alienating they often had me questioning whether his previous work was as powerful as I remembered. As a result, I walked into his latest film, A Hidden Life, with great trepidation.
Visually it is every bit as luminous as his previous works but this time the narrative structure and script were top tier. The story follows a peasant Austrian farmer during World War II who refused to pledge an oath of allegiance to Adolph Hitler. At three-hours, this isn't a film for those looking for easy escapism, but it is a morality tale for our times. If I had seen this film twenty, even ten years ago I would have looked at it as a historical film but in 2019 it's filled with allegories of the world at large, especially America, where pledging your patriotism and turning a blind eye to horrors right in front of you, comes with a price. This is a film for our times. This is Malick's most realized film since Badlands in 1973. The films the preceded this one lacked focus, a tight script or empathetic characters. A Hidden Life remedies these errors in a film that is a flush with visual metaphors that have meaning and purpose. No shot in this film is wasted and every word is uttered with urgency. A Hidden Life is a moving, symbolic and poignant masterpiece.
12. Avengers: Endgame
What Kevin Feige accomplished over eleven years and twenty two films is nothing short of astonishing. A interweaving and connected larger story of Marvel superheroes and the penultimate film in the journey, Endgame, pulled it all together. Credit directors Anthony and Joe Russo who brought this film to a thrilling and emotionally draining conclusion that did the impossible, it pleased almost everyone.
13. Little Women
There was no reason to remake Louisa May Alcott's novel, but Greta Gerwig delivered a faithful adaptation while injecting it with just enough modern relevancy to make you stand up and cheer. From her superb casting to a razor sharp script and her skillful directing, Gerwig delivered on all counts and made a modern feminist film for the ages.
14. The Farewell
Writer/director Lulu Wang's made a film that's endearing but it's also about identity. Awkwafina gives a performance I believe will be studied for years. At a crossroads in her life in America, she finds out her grandmother in China is dying, but no one is going to tell her. She makes one last trip to China to see her grandmother and throughout the film we study her performance, where she makes important but subtle strokes of emotion. Awkwafina's performance is able to tell a story that isn't on the written page.
The best teen comedy comes courtesy of Olivia Wilde who made her directing debut with Booksmart. Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman's script is smart and sassy but it's the pairing of actresses Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein that allows the audience to bond with them; two friends at a crossroads. The film has heart and humor and is worth repeat viewings.
16. Ash is the Purest White
Set in the Chinese underworld, director Jia Zhangke weaves a tale of loyalty, hardship, defiance and betrayal that is every bit as gripping as it is heartbreaking. Zhao Tao's performance of Qiao is full of potency as the girlfriend of mob boss Bin and the emotional undercurrent she brings to the role will weigh on you long after the credits roll.
Director/writer Christian Petzold brings fresh take to the story of a refugee trying to escape a fascist regime has eerie parallels to modern times. The film us unnerving in a novel adaptation (the source material was written in 1944 but the film doesn't take place then) that will keep you guessing as the characters search for a new home.
Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins make 1917 more than just another war entry. Some feel the continuous take that stretches across the film is a stunt, but in a dark theater, the horrors of war come to life where Medes and Deakins put the viewer with their boots on the ground in a terrifying (and dazzling) film. Credit must be given to screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns who conceived the concept and injected a mortal element amidst the dazzling camera work, brought to life by George MacKay, that makes the end result all that more heartbreaking.
19. Uncut Gems
Benny and Josh Safdie's Uncut Gems is a vicious masterpiece. Watching it is akin to putting your hand in a blender and watching the blood and bone sputter and spit on your face. Adam Sandler plays a man whose drug is winning and if he's not winning, nothing else matters. Not his wife, family, girlfriend, family, and the money he owes his brother-in-law or his job matter. Why make a movie about such a miserable man? Ultimately the Safdies control the narrative with slight touches of claustrophobia such as a vestibule that continually jams, the late night clubs, tight offices, and car trunks. These small spaces thrust the audience into their world of greed, chance and a yearning to be a winner, even if just for a moment.
20. Pain and Glory
Pedro Almodóvar's "Pain and Glory" is one of 2019's most galvanizing films. It's a deeply personal film with Antonio Banderas giving his most vulnerable performance. The film unfolds in two distinct stories which unfold gently culminating in the best final shot of any film from 2019. It recontextualizes the previous two hours in a heart rendering moment where all the little puzzle pieces form into a perfect picture.
21. Jojo Rabbit
Taika Waititi has a gift for the absurd ( Thor: Ragnarok, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) and he's possibly the only writer/director who could pull of a historical satire on the Nazi's and Hitler (who Waititi plays in the film). The film is polarizing for its depiction of the Nazi's but I found to be emotionally wrenching and in the end, it's a parable of empathy. It may be absurdist, but it's also powerful in its depiction of personal transformation.
22. For Sama
Filmed by a mother for her daughter and taking place in Aleppo, Syria, For Sama may steal a piece of your soul. Filmed amidst a war there is a scene of a mother carrying her dead child as she screams and wails for help. You watch in horror and want to look away, but you can't because you become invested in these people, their lives and their journey. One of the reasons films are possibly our greatest art form is their ability to evoke empathy in the viewer. For a few hours, you walk a mile in their shoes, experiencing not just their hurt but their happiness as well. Waad al-Kateab's film is more than a love letter to her daughter, it's a film we need to learn from.
Jordan Peele throws his hat in the ring as a master of intrigue and distress. Lupita Nyong'o gives a performance for the ages that was sadly overlooked in end of the year awards considerations. This would make for a great double feature with Parasite where we could debate class structure, lucid nightmares and the importance of the structure of family.
24. Spider-Man: Far From Home / 25. Captain Marvel
Marvel had its greatest year at the cinema and while Endgame broke every record imaginable, these bookends feature some of the best Marvel films to date., Brie Larson embodies Captain Marvel to the core while Tom Holland perfect Peter Parker's high school awkwardness while being a superhero. Spider-Man: Far From Home may be Peter Parker's greatest onscreen adventure and Captain Marvel may be Marvel's first standalone female superhero movie, but definitely not the last. Both films are fun but they're also inspiring and in this day and age, we need it wherever we can find it.
26. Always Be My Maybe
Sometimes a movie doesn't have to be original, daring or bold, it just has to be good. Always Be Maybe puts a slightly different spin on the romantic comedy, but it's the two leads Ali Wong and Randall Park that elevate the film and make it great. Available on Netflix, it's a rare film that will warm you head-to-toe.
27. Gloria Bell
Every second of Gloria Bell is reliant on the radiance of Julianne Moore, who plays a divorcée who loves to dance when she unexpectedly finds love. While the film is a remake of a foreign film from earlier in the decade, Moore brings a charm and vulnerability to the role of a woman who has lived a good life, desires more and yet, encounters more hardship than she should. The film is a testament to her resilience, instead of wallowing in that drama, the way she rises above it all is what makes her performance, and the film, so memorable.
28. Toy Story 4
They should have stopped after the third film, I didn't see any reason for this series to continue and yet it did and in the final five minutes, tears streamed down my face. If Toy Story 3 was the end of Andy's story, Toy Story 4 is about how life has a way to separating you from your friends and finding a way to begin new chapters in the face of that parting.
29. Long Shot
Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah's script is sharp, witty and is a giddy romp brought to life by Seth Rogen, a journalist, and Charlize Theron, the United States Secretary of State. The odd couple story has been told before, but not quite like this, where the stakes are high. Possibly the best part of Long Shot is how it holds up on repeat viewings with persistent laughs. Theron received an Oscar nomination for her superb performance in Bombshell, but make no mistake, it's in Long Shot where she truly shines and pushes the comedy envelope.
Ari Aster stunned us in 2018 with Hereditary and in 2019 he made us all afraid of traveling to Sweden. The film is now available on Amazon Prime and your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to watch it with your significant other while you take turns looking at each other asking questions and uttering phrases like: "Did THAT just happen?", "WHAT is in that pie?", "There are bears in Sweden?", "You won't ever make me take mushrooms when we travel internationally, right?", "We're not going to do that to our parents when they get older, right?", "What IS the Oracle?", "Is that a skin mask?", "We are never ever having group sex!", "So this is what it's like for those who become prom queen.", "Are they mimicking her or mocking her?", "Oh boy, s**t is about to get real!", "After watching THAT happen they want to do research?"
31. John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
The world is having a Keanu moment (he makes appearances in three movies on this list) and you can see why, John Wick has become one of the most formidable movie characters this decade. These films are dazzling action operas with intense action sequences, gun fights and a tightly wound script that has introduced us to a world that's fascinating and invigorating that hopefully won't end anytime soon.
32. The Art of Self Defense
This black comedy may have been the most quotable film of the year ("I won't be petting you anymore. This is for your own good. ") Jesse Eisenberg is recovering from a beating by a motorcycle gang and joins a karate dojo where his life takes a dramatic turn. Alessandro Nivola and Imogen Poots give A-grade performances in this highly original film.
33. Dolemite Is My Name
I've struggled with Eddie Murphy films for the better part of the last thirty years, but this Netflix film is his best during that time. It's not only his best from this last few decades, it has what's arguably his greatest performance as Rudy Ray Moore is a reminder that Murphy's talents know no limits when he's passionate about the subject.
34. Ad Astra
Brad Pitt had a really good year and in Ad Astra he delivers one of his most existential performances. Pitt has to excavate buried traumas in a surprisingly effective human drama disguised as a science fiction story.
35. Doctor Sleep
There's no reason for this film or story to exist. Stephen King's sequel to The Shining seemed an unlikely prospect until King wrote it. The film adaptation with Ewan McGregor as Danny Torrance is a psychological rollercoaster that is never grotesque while chilling you to your core. Torrence has psychic abilities which have haunted him since he was a child and as he grows older, he finds a way to heal with them and help others. Director/writer Mike Flanagan does both the novel and the Kubrick film justice, as he carefully melds the two into a terrifying nightmare you won't soon forget.
36. Long Day's Journey Into Night
Writer/director Gan Bi has crafted an exquisite film told in two parts, and is about chasing ghosts. Memories of the past haunt Luo Hongwu in a sporadic first hour, but it's the second hour, originally shown in 3D and one complete shot, that push the film into remarkable territory. It's a slow burn film, but you will find yourself thinking about it and wanting to revisit it.
37. Ford v Ferrari
Can the Ford Motor Company compete at Le Mans in France in 1966? James Mangold crafted a drama that is driven more by the characters more than the mechanical cars and this is why it works. Matt Damon and Christian Bale are perfectly matched in a film that could have been made five decades back.
38. High Life
Directory Claire Denis has crafted a father-daughter story about survival in space with Robert Pattinson once again playing against type in yet another brilliant indie turn. There are layers of complexity in the film and as the story and motives begin to reveal yourself, you slowly begin to realize that even as we travel through space, the fragility of humans will splinter apart only to eventually be brought back together again.
Mike Leigh films are brooding and deliberate. They take their time in building out a story with nuances you don't fully grasp until later in the film. Leigh carefully reconstructs the shameful Peterloo Massacre of 1819 in Manchester, England. It's a testament to the importance or protesting and journalism.
Cynthia Erivo is revelatory as Harriet Tubman. It's ridiculous that her story doesn't have at least a handful of films honoring her legacy, and director Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou) delivers a film that does Tubman's legacy justice without taking any risks with the storytelling, but when the story is as rich as this and you have an actor such as Erivo, you don't need anything else.
Also worth seeking out :
42. Little Woods
44. Sorry Angel
46. The Edge of Democracy
47. The Chambermaid
48. After the Wedding
49. Birds of Passage
50. Amazing Grace
51. The Nightingale
52. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
53. Fast Color
54. Apollo 11
55. The Report
56. Ready or Not
58. I Lost My Body
59. The Wild Pear Tree
61. Wild Rose
62. American Factory
63. Peanut Butter Falcon
64. High Flying Bird
65. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
66. It: Chapter Two
67. Frozen II
68. Brittany Runs A Marathon
69. 3 Faces
71. Rolling Thunder Revue
72. The Lighthouse
73. Marriage Story
74. Never Look Away
75. Teen Spirit
76. The Two Popes
77. Where'd You Go, Bernadette
78. Missing Link
79. The Cave
80. Zombieland: Double Tap
81. The Aftermath
82. Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
83. Under the Silver Lake
85. The Dead Don't Die
86. Jumanji: The Next Level
87. Fighting with My Family
88. Her Smell
90. Pokémon Detective Pikachu
91. Isn't It Romantic?
93. Everybody Knows
94. Cold Pursuit
95. Sea of Shadows
96. Charlie's Angels
98. Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark
99. J.T Leroy
100. David Crosby: Remember My Name
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
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